The Ethics of Protest
Noam Avram Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics.
Among his many accomplishments, he is most famous for his work on generative grammar, which developed from his interest in modern logic and mathematical foundations. As a result, he applied it to the description of natural languages.
His political tendencies toward socialism and anarchism are a result of what he calls "the radical Jewish community in New York." Since 1965 he has become one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. He published a book of essays called American Power and the New Mandarins which is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against American involvement in Vietnam.
Question: What ethical dilemmas have you faced and how did you resolved them?
Noam Chomsky: There's fundamental questions that are arising all the time. Like, how do I distribute my work and energy and effort? Every minute of the day you have to face such questions. Sometimes they're—I wouldn't exactly call it an ethical dilemma, but—although I guess it is.
For example, in the early '60s, I had to make a really hard, for me, hard decision. Should I start becoming really active, instead of just talking, in critical human issues that were arising then? The war in Vietnam, the growing war in Vietnam, civil rights movement, many others. So should I become really active in those or should I devote my time and energy to very exciting intellectual work and to my growing family? I had little children.
Well, that's a hard decision.
I knew perfectly well that you can't just put your foot in it and walk away. If you get started, it's a growing commitment. And my wife [Carol Chomsky] and I had to work that out in some fashion. It was not simple. In fact, at one point, she actually had to go back to college after 17 years because it looked as though—if I might serve a long prison sentence and we had three kids to take care of. Well, there's decisions, that's a serious decision, but there are lots of others all the time.
Recorded on: Aug 18, 2009
Noam Chomsky recounts how his anti-Vietnam War activities nearly jeopardized his family.
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